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500 - 1400

Medieval Music


Medieval music is Western music written during the Middle Ages. This era begins with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century and ends sometime in the early fifteenth century. Establishing the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance is difficult; the usage in this article is the one usually adopted by musicologists.

early medieval music

500 - 880

880 - 1000

1000 - 1100

high medieval music

1100 - 1200

1200 - 1300

late medieval music

1300 - 1400

For people living during the period from 1100 to 1600, and even earlier, life contained a great deal to fear. Shortages of food and money, constant fighting, illness and disease, and political instability posed ever-present threats. The one constant factor was religion. The Church stood at the centre of people’s lives, and of their everyday rituals of existence: it was powerful, rich, and the provider to many. A close association between religion, music, and all other significant aspects of culture was therefore entirely natural.

Pre-medieval culture

Early music used regularly in religious services was committed to memory, in the oral tradition, and was passed down through the centuries in this way, until notation was devised to record it in the ninth century. The word “mousike” comes from ancient Greece, where music played a vital role. The body of musical ideas evolved by the Greeks (among them Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras) formed the basis for music’s development in western Europe in later times, after Greek culture was transmitted throughout the west by the Romans. Instruments used in ancient Greece included lyres and flutes, which were generally used in songs to accompany poetry. The absence of instruments in early western Christian music can be partly understood as a reaction against their perceived pagan origins.

Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, and by the fourth century AD was the official religion. The Church grew in influence as it established land ownership and wealth. Many people were disillusioned with the material nature of prosperous Roman society, and this led to the development of the first monasteries, dedicated to self-denial and religious worship. Christianity in its Orthodox form was growing in the east (around present-day Greece and Turkey). Rome and the west suffered continual turmoil, but the eastern part of the Empire remained intact. This became the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinopk (Istanbul) as its capital: it was to flourisl for the next thousand years.

During the “Dark Ages” (the name given by Renaissance thinkers to the Middle Ages [c. 1000—1400 ad] anc before), the vital classical heritage of the ancient Greeks was safeguarded in th( eastern Empire. In the west, as tht Roman world declined, monasterie: provided the only safe haven for classica knowledge and arts. Against a genera backdrop of unrest and insecurity, the} were more than just secure retreats. A: they accumulated gifts from devout followers, they became rich and substantia land-owning bodies, who could commission work from the best architects artists, sculptors and composers. The} became the main patrons of the arts Except in Italy, they were virtually the only providers o schools and education. Altogether, it is not surprising that culture was strongly flavoured by religion.


Early Christian music

Early Christian music was characterized by various types o chant, with different places developing their own styles Ambrosian chant grew up in Milan, named after the fourth-century Bishop Ambrose who first recorded them; Spain anc France evolved separate bodies of liturgical (church-service music. It was the church music of the city of Rome, however that laid the substantial foundations on which later westerr music was built.
The many traditional chants (
called PLAIN-CHANT or PLAINSONG) were gathered into an ordered systen by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century, and hence are ofter referred to as Gregorian chant.
This collection became the standard music of the Roman Catholic Church. In the nintl century the repertory began to develop and expand, with extr; material — both words and music — being incorporated into the chants to give a richer, more complex sound. A radical nev concept was also gradually introduced into music at this time  which would further enrich it as well as take it in a dramatic new direction that would last for centuries. The new style was known as POLYPHONY, and was distinguished by its use of several separate musical lines (contrasting with the single line of plainchant). The main form of early polyphony was organum.

PLAINCHANT or PLAINSONG. Sung chant that accompanied the services and Offices of the Christian Church from earliest times. It consisted of a single line of text and melody, sung by a single voice (the priest) or by several voices in unison (the choir).

POLYPHONY. Greek, “many-sounded." The style of music that developed from increasing the number of independent melodic lines from one (as with chant) to two, three or even four, giving greater depth and complexity. The style evolved over many centuries, flourishing from the I 3th to the 16th.


The Holy Roman Empire

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. This revival of the Roman imperial title, which had not been used in western Europe since the fifth century, heralded the birth of what would come to be known, much later, as the IToly Roman Empire. This vast, shifting, political and military empire would stretch for a thousand years across what are now, broadly, modern-day Germany, northern Italy, and part ot France. Its chief lands were mostly German, and its ruler was usually the German king. Throughout the Middle Ages the ruling dynasty was closely allied with the Roman papacy in its leadership of Christian Europe; a political and religious alliance that accentuated the increasing gap between the western and eastern (Byzantine) sides of the Roman Empire. Not long into the eleventh century, there was a fatal deterioration in the relationship between the western Church of Rome and the eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) Church. In 1054 a state of schism was declared and the two increasingly went their separate ways.

In the ninth and tenth centuries a revival occurred in the classical arts, encouraged by the Emperor Charlemagne at the Frankish court and subsequently by the Ottoman German Emperors (whose dynasty followed that of Charlemagne). In the late eleventh century a new style in architecture and manuscript illumination reached its pinnacle in western Europe. Known as Romanesque (because ofits indebtedness to the classical Roman past), this movement fused local traditions with Roman, Germanic, and Byzantine influences. Resulting from a widespread religious revival at this time and seen most clearly in the building of monasteries and churches, the style touched on all the decorative arts of the period, and was characterized by a confidence and grandeur in buildings, and exuberant freedom in monumental sculpture.


Medieval Europe: the expansion of culture

By the twelfth century, society in western Europe was becoming more complex and more cultured. As teachers set up schools separate from the monasteries (for example, those attached to new cathedrals such as Chartres in northern France), they created new opportunities for education. Opportunities outside the Church also increased; art, architecture, music and literature began to expand to meet wider needs. An era was dawning that would see universities appear and courts become influential patrons. Yet, for music and all the arts, the patronage of the Church remained vital.

Romanesque was superseded towards the mid-twelfth century by Gothic, the second major European art movement of the Middle Ages, lasting several hundred years. Gothic architecture used the principle of converging arches, with ornate stone ceilings and vast decorated windows. After the heavy Romanesque style, the Gothic constructions, with their slim columns and tremendous sense of height, were truly buildings of celebration. Their proportions and their very fabric amplified sound — a special inspiration to composers, who developed techniques to fill the space with glorious, soaring music.


The Notre Dame school of music

The church of Notre Dame in Paris now became the main centre of musical influence in western Europe. The great Gothic cathedral was commissioned in 1160 to replace the old Romanesque building; it took 80 years to build, during which time much sacred polyphonic music was composed. The French poet and musician Leonin, a canon of the cathedral, wrote his Magnus liber organi (Great Book of Organum), a major collection of material for the church year. His successor, Perotin, took the work further, expanding the organum form (adding, for example, aspects of rhythm taken from secular — non-religious — music), as well as creating new forms. It was at the Notre Dame school that the MOTET (essentially a composition for more than one voice) developed, encouraged in large part by Perotin's innovations.

ORGANUM. Form of early polyphony, mainly choral but sometimes accompanied by the organ. Initially, the separate musical lines moved in parallel and in the same rhythm. As the style evolved, the lower voice (tenor) retained the basic, stable plainchant melody while the other parts moved more freely above it, allowing room for some rhythmic inventiveness. Later still, the upper parts even used non-religious texts, which the Church appears to have accepted provided that the sacred music of the tenor line was not obscured. Organum reached its most developed state with Perotin in the 12th century.

MOTET. A polyphonic composition, initially based on plainchant, classically in three parts. Each part was sung at a different speed and using different words, not always Latin (the language of the Church). At first religious, by the 13th century it had adapted to secular functions too. In later medieval times the motet was the main form of musical composition, often accompanied by the organ.


Secular music: the troubadour tradition

The development through the Middle Ages of liturgical, as opposed to secular, music was relatively well documented. Secular music, though not chronicled in the same way, had certainly been evolving alongside sacred music; the twelfth century saw a fully formed tradition emerge in France. The Church was a wealthy patron, but the aristocracy was even wealthier; the difference lay in the fact that the aristocracy placed less emphasis on learning. The standards and beliefs of secular culture were seldom set down in writing until the twelfth century, when the use of vernacular (native language) literature began to increase, and members of the upper classes became more typically able to read. This was the era of the Crusades, of chivalric ideals, of courtly life. The world of chivalry was one where knightly valour, gallantry, loyalty, and courtesy were of the utmost importance. The new royal and princely courts of the age required noblemen to show as much prowess on the dance floor as on the hunting field, in courtly love as in battle; to express themselves as ably through poetry, languages, and music as through the arts of war and sport.

It was against this background that the secular music of medieval France developed. The early performers were minstrels (jongleurs or menestrels) who went from village to village eking out a living by providing very basic entertainment. From these emerged troubadours (trouveres in northern France), poet-composers who belonged to the nobility and performed songs about courtly love and the political and moral issues of the day. In Germany, musicians known as Minnesinger flourished, performing a similar function (these were superseded by the more widely known Meistersinger). Doubtless there were corresponding movements in England, Spain, and Italy, but little documentation survives. The music of the troubadours was monophonic (as opposed to the more sophisticated polyphony of the new religious music) and relatively limited in scope, but innovations included the evolution of many formal, structured patterns. Such forms included the BALLADE and RONDEAU; both influenced composers of sacred polyphony.

MONOPHONY. Greek, “single-sounded.” The use of a single melody in a piece of music, a style dominant before, but not totally supplanted by, the development of polyphony.

BALLADE and RONDEAU. Forms of medieval polyphonic song (poetry set to music), the rondeau using sections of words and music that recurred. (These are not the same as the later piano ballade or the 17th-century rondo.)

Social and musical developments

Towns now developed rapidly across Europe, with a corresponding growth in agriculture. Fine buildings housed universities at centres of learning such as Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris in the early thirteenth century, and Prague and Heidelberg in the fourteenth. While papal power remained strong, the power of the monasteries was being steadily usurped by the new city centrepieces - the cathedrals — which were in turn creating their own schools of learning, such as at Lyons and Chartres.

Musically, by about 1250 the importance of organum and its related forms was declining, and for the next 50 years the medieval motet dominated both secular and liturgical worlds. From 1150 until as late as 1300, new and old liturgical music stood side by side, and historians have christened the period Ars Antiqua (old art) — as distinct from the important Ars Nova (new art) movement that followed. A remarkably rich anthology of music covering this period survives to this day in a manuscript of the satirical poem Le roman de Fauvel (The story of Fauvel). The collection contains some of the earliest known examples of Ars Nova, five songs by the French composer Philippe de Vitry on courtly love.

The Ars Nova movement, which exerted an influence on music over several centuries to come, derived its name from a tract written by Vitry in the early fourteenth century. His treatise set out the theories of music notation and harmony that were the innovative developments of his day. It was Guillaume de Machaut, however, who was the most important Ars Nova

composer. He dominated both in sheer volume of work and in the further development of the motet and polyphonic songs that characterized the movement, replacing the restrictive plainchant and organum of Ars Antiqua with greater freedom of rhythm and a new complexity in multi-part songs.

Religious and political upheaval

Following a period of feuding with the Italian nobility and cardinals, in 1309 the papal court moved trom Rome to the Provencal city of Avignon. There it remained until 1377, increasingly subject to French influences. On the court’s return to Rome, such unrest was generated that in 1378 dissenting cardinals established a rival pope. For the next 30 years, in a period of church history known as the Great Schism, two popes contested the leadership of Christendom, and the papal reputation suffered severe damage. In England, early religious discontent was sown by the reformer John Wyclif, who — a century ahead of his time — rejected papal power and circulated extracts of the Bible translated from Latin into English so ordinary people could understand.

In northern Europe, a series of conflicts known as the Hundred Years War raged between France and England from about 1337 to 1453. On top of continual warring and religious unrest, fourteenth-century Europe also sulfered a crisis brought on by famine and disease. Populations, weakened by a succession of bad harvests, were decimated by waves of plagues like the Black Death, which recurred throughout the century and, indeed, the centuries to come. Survivors were gripped by a deep-seated fear of having in some way offended God: this led to witch-hunts against any suspect groups. The spectre of heresy became a dark and lasting undercurrent of the age. Artistically, although this was a period of revival, a strong stream of pessimism persisted, shown in such specific themes as the Dance of Death. However, such dramatic depopulation did have some positive results, eventually including better wages, improved diets and, not least, a rapid end to serfdom.

Illustration from the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript (13th c.)

Illustration from the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript (13th c.)

Illustration from the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript (13th c.)

Illustration from the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript (13th c.)

Illustration from the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript (13th c.)

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